Diversity and Culture of Inclusion Updates Summer 2021



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Diversity and Culture of Inclusion 

Brief Overview of Activities

The DCI pillar has coordinated several events and workshops in an effort to continue promoting diversity and inclusion among CISTAR members. In the face of continuing challenges presented by COVID-19, these events and sessions remain virtual; this has, at least, opened the door to increased participation in events and workshops from all partner institutions as well as widening our reach to more geographically dispersed and diverse participants. 

Topics have included traditional subjects, such as improving mentoring skills or celebrating MLK Day, to less traditional subjects, such as preparing students to give good oral presentations, effectively managing imposter syndrome, and dealing with disappointment during times of crises.  A good example was the presentation set up at the UNM Campus in collaboration with their Student Health and Counseling Center to discuss how to deal with the mental health impacts this pandemic has caused among many of our students. 

Our DCI directors continue to be actively involved in outreach and recruitment activities, bringing opportunities to K-12 students.  For example, the DCI Director at Purdue presented to the high school students attending the UNM Engineering Summer Academy about cultural differences and what it means to be inclusive.  The DCI Co-Director at UNM has also been part of organizing and taking hands-on activities to underprivileged high school students that do not get many opportunities at their schools to learn about energy concepts.

Outreach at UNM 

Starting April 28, Elsa Castillo, CISTAR Co-Director of DCI, and her UNM Recruitment and Outreach team returned to normal, in-person activities and began going to schools that allowed those visits. While there were several restrictions in place at the schools, the team said it was "very rewarding" to see the student's faces and how enthusiastic they were to have an in-person visitor come to teach science. For the schools that are not allowing visitors just yet, Elsa and her team will supply the teachers with materials ahead of time and follow up with a virtual session. 

UNM in person outreach events

Above: Photos from UNM outreach events

In subsequent short articles, we present the winners of the 2021 CISTAR Outstanding Mentor Awards and overview two DCI sessions that were Centerwide.

CISTAR’s 2021 Outstanding Mentor Award Winners

by Dr. Denise M. Driscoll

We’d like to take a little newsletter space to thank all our CISTAR faculty, postdoctoral scholars, and graduate fellows who mentored students this past year.  It was an especially tough year to be a mentor, magnified if you were mentoring a new student that you had never met in person before. Even if virtual mentoring is a good skill to acquire, we thank all of you for continuing to be great mentors despite the challenges.  Before announcing this year’s winners, I’d like to acknowledge the help of the Mentor Award Committee in reviewing the nominations and choosing the winners:  Dr. Linda Broadbelt, Elsa Castillo, Maeve Drummond Oakes, and Elsa Koninckx.  Thank you for your time.

For the 2021 winners pictured below, we want to extend a special thank you for being outstanding, often virtual, mentors! 


2021 CISTAR Mentor Award Winners

Allison Arinaga, NU

"Allison still reaches out ...she emailed me when our publication got its first citation, which really made it feel like everything I worked on with her help was worth it!"


Ryan Alcala, UNM

"Ryan is one of the best mentors that I have had... he is patient, knowledgeable, approachable, and very worthy of this award!"


Alexander Bridge, UTA

"Alexander has been an excellent mentor... he taught me to write abstracts and create posters for various competition!"


Jerry Crum, UND

"Jerry always goes the extra mile to make me feel welcome ...he has been a shining example for me to emulate as I will be starting my graduate program next year!"


Nicole LiBretto, PU

Nicole has always gone above and beyond ...her passion in the lab has led me to be more excited about the discoveries I find!"


Jason Hicks, UND

"Jason is a great mentor who genuinely cares about the students he works with and I cannot think of a more deserving recipient of the CISTAR faculty mentor award."



Raj Gounder, PU

"Raj’s outstanding mentorship has been instrumental to my success. Because of him, I am confident that I can achieve my greatest professional goals."



In addition, each of the graduate fellows will be receiving a $200 scholarship.  This year’s winners are probably relieved that I didn’t ask them to “imagine holding a big check and take a picture of yourself” as I requested of the graduate fellows who won last year during the COVID lockdown.  But that is because I look forward to congratulating all the CISTAR Outstanding Mentors--from both 2020 and 2021--in person at the in person (it merits saying twice) CISTAR Biannual Meeting at the University of Texas at Austin! 

Mental Health and Wellbeing Session at CISTAR’s Annual Meeting

by Dr. Denise M. Driscoll

There were requests after we did a brief session about mental health and wellbeing at CISTAR’s Biannual Meeting in October to do another short, educational session at the CISTAR Annual Meeting in April.  We began the session with some motivating words from our director about the importance of the topic and the special role that all of us play in creating a professional environment that supports mental health and wellness.

The focus of the session was threefold:  1. To learn a little about brain disorders, 2. To give reminders about current stress factors and discuss how to create a more supportive, professional environment, and 3. To talk about resources that exist at universities to help in this upcoming (hopefully) post-COVID year.

The session included the following activities: 

Photo taken from:  https://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_insel_toward_a_new_understanding_of_mental_illness?language=en1. We watched a 2013 Ted Talk by Thomas Insel titled Toward a new understanding of mental illness that talked about some breakthroughs in biomedical research but pointed out the lag in understanding ‘brain disorders’ given the brain’s complexity.  Dr. Insel spoke optimistically, however, about the changes to come in the upcoming years when we’ll be able to intervene early to stop the progression of a brain disorder instead of waiting until these disorders get to the point where they manifest behaviorally.  In breakout rooms, we discussed reactions to the Ted Talk, what was learned, and important takeaways.  When asked in a follow-up survey about the session, “Was the discussion useful?” there were overwhelming ‘yes’ responses, especially about having a good discussion in their breakout rooms.  A request for a more updated video was made in survey comments.  I could only find a somewhat related TedSummit Talk by Ed Boyden from 2016 titled A new way to study the brain’s invisible secrets. Boyden describes a fascinating technological innovation that may prove useful in the future.  Other great Ted Talks recommended at the end of the session were:  There’s no shame in taking care of your mental health (by Sangu Delle) and Mental health for all by involving all (by Vikram Patel). 

Photo taken from: https://www.123rf.com/photo_26067603_isolated-of-lonely-pigeon-burying-his-head-under-his-wing-and-feeling-sad.html 2. We discussed findings about the stress levels being experienced in October 2020 by CISTAR members because of worry/fear about COVID and the health of loved ones and oneself.  An update was given about how, even in April 2021, it continues to be “a perfect storm!”  Many of us are experiencing high levels of stress because of the continued disruptive effects of COVID, racism in our institutions, political and social unrest, and re-emergence difficulties – all taking place in an Engineering Academic Environment which is often, in and of itself, a ‘high stress’ culture.

In breakout rooms, we discussed accommodations to help those experiencing continued stress and supportive practices that you’d keep in place, even after we return to ‘normal’).  When asked in a follow-up survey, “Was the discussion useful?” there were, again, overwhelming “yes” responses with comments about appreciating hearing others’ ideas/experiences and positive attitudes about being able to exchange information.

Photo taken in the evening from an office in the CISTAR headquarters 3. We closed the session by talking about how universities are trying to cope with increased mental health and wellness needs in the face of ongoing shortages of mental health professionals by 1. Paying for students and employees to download “Apps” that promote mental health and wellness (i.e., Breathe, Headspace, Therapy Assistance Online), 2. Hosting more workshops and talks to help maintain mental health and wellness (and sharing access across institutions whenever possible), and 3. Creating more online and campus resources to help educate and inform everyone on campus.

If interested in having the PowerPoint slides for this session, please email me at driscoll@purdue.edu, and I’d be happy to share them with you.  Also, please look for more upcoming talks and workshops about mental health and wellness hosted by the CISTAR Diversity and Culture of Inclusion pillar, Education pillar, and/or the Student Leadership Council.

Photo 1: Screen shot of the TED talk the group listened to during the workshop. Source: www. ted.com/talks
Photo 2: Source
Photo 3: Photo taken in the evening from an office in the CISTAR headquarters.

Coded Bias:  Exploring Bias in Research and Its Unintended Consequences

by Dr. Denise M. Driscoll

At the CISTAR April 2021 Annual Meeting, the Diversity and Culture of Inclusion pillar collaborated with the Student Leadership Council and the Education pillar to facilitate a workshop based on the 2020 film Coded Bias, directed by Shalini Kantayya, that documents bias in algorithms.  This session builds on the previous workshop from the CISTAR Biannual Meeting in October on Recognizing and Responding to Implicit Bias

Specifically, the film tells the story of Joy Buolamwini, a researcher at M.I.T., who found that her darker-skinned face was unable to be detected by facial-recognition software that she purchased.  The film goes on to describe how machine-learning algorithms lead to all kinds of biases that perpetuate societal inequalities and negatively impact lives.   

Text Box: Figure from the film Coded BiasAfter some introductory points about the many types of biases documented by social cognition and cognitive research in psychology (i.e., confirmatory bias, biased attributions), we watched a short 3-minute excerpt from the Coded Bias film focused on understanding bias in algorithms and, specifically, how facial recognition software is worse at not only detecting darker vs. lighter skinned faces, but female vs. male faces. 

Following a few words from our director about the importance of challenging yourself to pay attention to bias in research, we went into breakout rooms to talk about reactions to the film, to share other types of biases in science or engineering that they’ve heard about, and to brainstorm about any way bias has, or might, creep into the types of research that CISTAR does. 

We then reconvened to watch a second, eight minute segment about the often unintended consequences of bias. Having made the point already about facial recognition software having bias, the film demonstrated the ubiquitous nature of bias creeping into all aspects of our lives—from how teachers are evaluated to what one’s credit score is.  We returned to breakout rooms to talk about other unintended consequences or harm from bias, and to talk about what their use means for our civil rights and liberties. 

In responding to a follow-up survey, participants had varied reactions, but what was consensual was the emotional tone of their comments, using words about the film such as shocking, surprising, eye-opening, and worrisome.  Most participants also thought it had been a productive conversation about bias in their research, although a few participants reported having difficulty in pinpointing bias in what they do (and, admittedly, there may be no bias to find in their case).

In closing, people often have the false belief that computers are somehow less error-prone than humans, but it simply isn’t the case.  Often what one is doing by relying on algorithms is perpetuating bias.

The session ended with the challenge for everyone to grow in their awareness of the impact of bias on everyday thoughts, decisions, and judgments, to consider one’s research from the perspective of who might not be ‘in the room’ or to think about how aspects of their research would be viewed by someone with expertise not already represented on the research team.  This type of “other perspective-taking” thinking has been shown to help so that ‘bias creep prevention’ becomes a part of your everyday research practice. 

If interested in having the PowerPoint slides, please email me at driscoll@purdue.edu, and I’d be happy to share them.  Also, if interested in watching the film in its entirety, now it can be found on Netflix. Finally, there are several related recommended documentaries that can be watched for free at: https://tree.northwestern.edu/news/2020-06-17-documentary-screenings.


Photo 1: Screen shot from the documentary Coded Bias, showing how the facial recognition software recognized the researchers face once she covered her face with the white mask.